France is a major player in Oceania, a place where Australia, which has a leading position in this vast region of the South Pacific, has historically developed solid, neighborly relations. From the middle of the XVIII century to the present, France has owned New Caledonia (with the world’s fourth largest nickel reserves and a French military base), Wallis and Futuna (which has a strategic location), and French Polynesia (known as Tahiti), with a French nuclear testing site that has lain dormant since 1996.
The foundation of bilateral diplomatic relations between France and Australia was laid back in 1842, and they have became stronger over the years that have passed since WWI and WWII.
In the XXI century close interaction has evolved between Canberra and Paris on all significant issues, including regional security and environmental protection.
France keeps striving to maintain its presence in Oceania for a variety of reasons, one of which is to prevent the emergence of a monopolar, Anglophone world by promoting Francophone cultural influence wherever that is possible. Since the French believe that the concept of “culture” encompasses political culture, economic culture, etc., the objective set by Paris in the Pacific Ocean is to curb the expansion of Anglo-Saxon countries – the USA, Australia and New Zealand – not to mention Asian states like China and India. As a consequence, France is ready to sponsor its South Pacific possessions, sometimes even to the detriment of its own budget.
After gaining independence from Great Britain in 1942, Australia’s foreign policy objectives have included maintaining mutually beneficial relations with France in Oceania in general, and in particular in Melanesia, which is part of Australia’s line of defense but where in New Caledonia – located only 1,500 kilometers from the coast of Australia – French military forces are stationed. Taking this circumstance into account, Australia and France need to build a thoughtful, harmonious relationship that is based on building trust and fostering cooperation. For example, the presence of French military forces in Oceania allows regular joint exercises between French and Australian naval forces, both to protect maritime borders and to provide assistance during emergencies, for example if natural disasters like typhoons and floods arise, which are not uncommon for the tropical climate. French warships often call on Australian ports.
The importance of having a defense relationship between the Australian and French sides in the Pacific was highlighted in Australia’s 2016 Defense White Paper. That same year, Australia and France signed an agreement regarding the exchange and reciprocal protection of classified information, which marked a milestone in the development of the strategic partnership between these countries, and formed the cornerstone for a cooperation agreement on the Future Submarine Program (FSP), something that is important for Australia’s defense and entered into force in 2017. In addition, in 2019, the two countries entered into another agreement concerning a strategic partnership for the French side to build Attack-class submarines for the Australian Navy.
At the present stage, the relationship between Australia and France in the field of defense can be described as very strong. It is founded on the Agreement Between the Government of Australia and the Government of the French Republic Regarding the Provision of Mutual Logistics Support Between the Australian Defense Force and the French Armed Forces, which was signed in Sydney in 2018.
In 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron went on a business trip to Australia, during which he and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull signed a Vision Statement on the Australia-France Relationship, in which the leaders agreed to launch the Australia-France initiative (AFiniti ), aimed at strengthening bilateral relations across all areas.
France has charted a course to bolster its position in Oceania since the early 2000s. Despite the fact that Australia strives for absolute leadership in the region, Canberra does not place any restrictions on the aspirations of the French side: cooperating with France – the sixth-largest economy in the world and one of EU’s leading countries – allows Australia to gain access to 25 integrated European markets that have a single Euro currency and a total population of 450 million. Specifically, in 2018 Australia and the European Union began negotiations on setting up a free trade zone.
Bilateral relations in the field of humanitarian cooperation – education and tourism – are evolving energetically. The cultural sector does not lag far behind: the Cultural Diplomacy Grants Program from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade helps bolster cooperation between the two countries in this area. In particular, the first French Festival took place in Adelaide, Australia’s “cultural capital”, in January 2018. Australia has also made a significant contribution to the collections at the French Quai Branly Museum (Musée du Quai Branly), part of which is devoted to the art and culture of Australia’s Aborigines.
Of course, sometimes disagreements have arisen between France and Australia, chiefly due to France conducting nuclear tests in French Polynesia from the 1960s to 1996 – something towards which Australia has taken a sharply negative attitude. However, this problem was resolved in 1999, after Paris ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The second aspect inherent in this controversy is related to the fact that Australian foreign policy, in many ways, combines itself with US policy. For example, US military action in Iraq in 2002 became a polemical issue, and something that Australia supported by sending its troop units there, while France criticized these actions. At the same time, France does not put any restrictions on Australia’s defense strategy in Oceania: being one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, France supported deploying an international peacekeeping force under Australia’s leadership in East Timor (formerly an Indonesian province) back in 1999-2000, and took the same position in June 2006 regarding another Australian intervention in the domestic affairs of the now independent state of Timor-Leste. Moreover, French President Jacques Chirac endorsed Australia’s intervention in the Solomon Islands in 2003.
This means that the conclusion can be drawn that a strong relationship exists, and will continue to exist, between France and Australia for a long time – something which should be taken into account when considering the balance of power in the Pacific Ocean.
Sofia Pale, PhD in History, Researcher at the Center for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.